Year in review: 10 reasons I loved my job in '08

December 29, 2008

Traditionally, as the year winds down, critics' thoughts tend toward "best of the year" lists. But I'm feeling the need for a more accurate label. It's difficult to honestly declare a "best" when you haven't sampled everything. And for one person to see everything Indy has to offer in music, dance, visual art and theater is impossible.

"Best of what I've seen"? That doesn't exactly fall from the tongue.

So, instead, I'm calling this year-end wrap-up "Ten Reasons Why I Loved My Job in 2008."

Here goes, in no particular order:

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Guys and Dolls in Concert." A blissful coming together of the ISO and top Broadway stars, this semi-staged, script-sometimes-in-hand production effectively squelched my desire to see the upcoming Broadway revival of the classic show. After all, how could it possibly be more entertaining—and how could it sound as great—as the world-class version offered right here in Indy? I saw it on a Friday and couldn't resist going back Sunday.

Spirit & Place Festival's "Powered by Poetry: Whirl of the Divine." This year's S&P Festival brought us this amazing showcase of the talented dance and theater students (and their director and choreographer) from Butler U. One of the toughest programs of the year to put into words (in one case, the words were total nonsense) was also one of the most riveting.

Theatre on the Square's "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant." I don't envy the folks at TOTS who had to try to sell tickets to this straight-faced, kid-cast, multi-level satire of L. Ron Hubbard and company. But anyone who did find their way to the show experienced something strange and wonderful. Credit Ron Spencer in guiding his tiny company to just the right balance of innocence and knowledge, hilarity and creepiness. A shame it didn't find the audience it deserved.

Beef & Boards' "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming." The folks at B&B wisely chose not to mess with a good thing. They reunited the flawless actor/musician company of 2007's "Smoke on the Mountain" for this show, which is actually the third in the series. This summer, it will be Christmas in July when the venerable eatery/theater stages the second part. Here's hoping that the entire clan returns for "Sanders Family Christmas."

Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art/Indianapolis Opera/ IMCPL's "Hansel & Gretel" collaboration. In perhaps the best example of creative arts collaboration this year, three seemingly unconnected organizations found a terrific way to link together. The Indianapolis Opera staged a solid, engaging production of "Hansel & Gretel," featuring Maurice Sendak's sets and costumes. IMOCA lured from New York an exhibition of H&G-based work by prominent cartoonists and illustrators. And the Central Library hosted creations on the same theme by Indianapolis artists. Each piece in the mix had its own artistic integrity. And together they were greater than the sum of their parts.

Indianapolis Museum of Art's "On the Road Again with Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank." The "On the Road" scroll was the attention-getting centerpiece of an exhibition that did more than present an unusual literary artifact. It also contextualized it with compelling photographs. And it certainly didn't hurt that the show was launched with an outstanding party, in this case featuring Kerouac compatriot David Amram and a woman who was the subject of one of Frank's most-noted shots.

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Dance Kaleidoscope's "The Rite of Spring." By dramatizing the tumult from the first performance of the Stravinsky groundbreaker, the ISO and its collaborators made the entire piece all the more compelling. It could have cut corners and still delivered a satisfying evening. But, instead, it took a few extra steps and created something truly memorable—including luring the great Roger Rees to lend his voice to the proceedings.

IndyFringe's "Assholes & Aureoles." The hit of this year's Fringe Fest was this intelligently nutty series of short plays created by actresses Karen Irwin and Diane Kondrat in collaboration with playwright Eric Pfeffinger. It proved that a show can be solidly professional, confident and hilarious while still being firmly on the fringe.

Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre's "Hooray for Bollywood." Choreographer Hancock's production, equally comfortable being high-energy and poignant, was a gloriously overstuffed evening of pleasures. Good news: He's got more up his sleeve with this spring's "India Ever After."

Purdue University Theatre's "Hair" and Ball State Theatre's "Violet." Two lesser-performed musicals received prick-up-your-ears productions courtesy of two university theaters to the north. Purdue shook the '60s icon loose from its cliches with no-apologies sincerity, some outstanding vocals and a great midnight-show gimmick. In Muncie, the tender musical about self-image and healing firmed up a place for BSU theater on my cultural radar.

Here are some other shows that made it a good year to be a critic:

I squeezed in yet another performance of Actors Theatre of Indiana's "A Year with Frog and Toad," a repeat from last year that retained its power to move. The Broadway in Indianapolis series brought outstanding professional revivals of "My Fair Lady" and "Twelve Angry Men" The Indianapolis Museum of Art's "Breaking the Mode" offered new ways to look at fashion. The Eiteljorg Museum's "Quest for the West" did the same for contemporary realism. Indiana Repertory Theatre's "A Christmas Carol" proved once again why the story—and the production—are classics. And the Indianapolis International Film Festival brought a host of outstanding films to our attention.

I hope you were able to share some of these wonderful only-in-Indiana arts experiences. And here's hoping that, when it comes time to compile this list next year, I have an overwhelming set of cultural memories to choose from.

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